A child with heart problems may or may not have obvious symptoms. Sometimes symptoms develop slowly, over time, such as when a child becomes gradually more and more fatigued. This gradual onset can lead to a delay in diagnosis. Other times, there may be a definite and noticeable change that signals a heart problem, such such as an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia). Symptoms of heart problems in children can vary based on the age of the child.
Symptoms of Heart Problems in Babies
Babies are used to receiving lower amounts of oxygen when they are in the womb. After birth, however, their oxygen levels should be the same as a healthy adult. When a baby is receiving less oxygen than normal, their skin may appear bluish. This is called cyanosis. Many hospitals and states are routinely checking the oxygen level of newborn babies using a simple, painless test called pulse oximetry. You can learn more about this test here.
The main job of a baby is to feed well and grow. When this is not happening, it could be due to the effects of congestive heart failure, or an inability of the body to keep up with the demands of an inefficient circulation.
Babies can breathe faster than normal and appear as if they are panting. This fast breathing is called tachypnea. Since heart problems can cause the baby to use more energy, poor feeding and inadequate weight gain can occur.
Excessive sweating with feeding (diaphoresis), can also occur, but is less common.
Symptoms of Heart Problems in Toddlers
Toddlers seem to be built to wear out parents. A toddler who seems to be shortness of breath too often, fatigued and unable to keep up with other children, it can sometimes signal a heart problem. Because todders do not have well-developed vocabulary, they often cannot accurately describe what they are feeling. For example, a toddler may describe an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) as “heart beeping,” “heart owie,” or “heart squeeze.” Or they may simply point to the chest.
Passing out (syncope) is less common in toddlers, but it can occur in rare situations.
Also, some young children are diagnosed as having “seizures” that are actually cardiac events.
Symptoms of Heart Problems in Older Children and Teenagers
Some older children and teenagers are very aware of what is going on in their bodies. Others are not. Some can feel every abnormal heartbeat, while others have no sensation of arrhythmia. Anytime a child passes out (syncope) with exercise, he or she should be carefully evaluated.
Excessive shortness of breath with activity can be difficult to distinguish from asthma, which is very common.
Unlike in adults, chest pain rarely indicates a cardiac condition in children, but a doctor should be notified if chest pain occurs with exercise.
When evaluating for heart problems in children, it is important to have a good understanding of the family history on both the mother’s and the father’s side. The child's care team should be aware of any sudden, unexplained death in the family as well as any seizure disorders, drownings, arrhythmias, other children born with heart problems and abnormal heart function (cardiomyopathies).